Andy Durgan outlines the political landscape following Catalonia’s recent elections and discusses potential outcomes for left organisations in the region.
Despite the victory of the pro-independence parties in the elections on 21 December, with eight of their MPs either in prison or exile it is uncertain how a new government will be formed this week in Catalonia. The Conservative PP government in Madrid had made it clear that the absent representatives will not be able to vote thus undermining the independentist majority.
The elections were the result of Spanish state intervention to dissolve the Catalan government after the unilateral declaration of independence on 27 October. Yet despite arrests and censorship the independence parties (Junts per Catalunya, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya [ERC] and Candidatura d’Unitat Popular [CUP]), won a new majority, taking 70 seats, down from 72 in 2015, compared with 57 for the Unionist parties (Ciudadanos, PSC and PP). The left reformist Catalunya en Comú took 8 seats.
Nonetheless, the victory for the independence movement and the near obliteration of the PP in Catalonia (only 4 seats) was tempered by the huge vote for the rabidly Spanish nationalist Ciudadanos party.
This renewed electoral victory for the independence parties has to be seen in the context of the mass mobilisations and referendum of last autumn and the direct intervention by the State dissolving the Catalan government and jailing independence leaders. 2.3 million voted in the referendum on 1 October, 90% yes, despite the Spanish government doing everything in its power to stop the vote, with thousands of police being sent and over a thousand injured on the day. The General Strike of 3 October in protest at this repression was the largest in Catalonia since the end of the Franco dictatorship (1939-1977). Both were a humiliating defeat for the Spanish government, which had assured the Referendum would never take place and, when it did, they then denied it had.
Pressurised by his allies on the left, ERC and CUP, and once more having failed in his attempts to open negotiations with Madrid, the Catalan President Carles Puigdemont declared the establishment of the Catalan Republic on 27 October, thus unleashing a wave of repression by the Spanish government, which immediately imposed Article 155 of the Constitution suspending the Autonomous Government and by jailing, or trying to jail, independence leaders charged with sedition and rebellion. Moreover the Hate Speech law (designed to protect against xenophobes and homophobes) has been used to persecute teachers, tweeters and comics. References to “political prisoners” have been banned on Catalan public TV and radio. The continued imprisonment of four independence leaders can be compared with the leniency shown towards the hundreds of cases of political corruption involving the PP, very few of whom have been imprisoned. Over the coming weeks many more independentists are expected to be accused of “sedition”. In a separate case over 700 mayors will also be charged for having declared support for independence.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that the prisoners are effectively hostages, with eight newly elected MPs either in prison or in exile, and the Spanish government’s aim is to undermine the forming of a new pro-independence government. More significantly, threats to dismantle linguistic immersion in schools, whereby children learn in Catalan, or intervene in the popular Catalan public television station TV3 on basis of ending “nationalist indoctrination” are clearly aimed at undermining national identity on a long-term basis.
Central government has also promoted economic blackmail, encouraging hundreds of firms, including some of the most emblematic “Catalan” businesses and banks, to transfer their central offices to other parts of Spain.
Once it became clear that the Republic was stillborn and the EU was not coming to its rescue, in a vain attempt to stem repression, re-establish the Autonomous Government and obtain the release of those imprisoned, Junts per Catalunya and ERC have now accepted that there can be no unilateral road to independence. Instead they promise to work inside the framework of a constitutional set-up established forty years ago as part of a compromise with the remnants of Francoism which denies the right of self determination to the national minorities.
This apparent capitulation comes after five years of mass mobilisation and promises to declare independence. For some this will be presented as a tactical interlude imposed by adverse circumstances. However, it is worth remembering that the party behind Puigdemont’s Junts per Catalunya, PDeCAT (Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya until 2016), only took up the independentist cause after the reformed Statute of Autonomy was thrown out by the Constitutional Court in 2010. In particular, Convergència´s change of line can be seen as a way of maintaining itself in power in the face of growing opposition to its austerity measures.
The elections of 21 December have also confirmed the deepening polarisation that exists in Catalan society. Ciudadanos’ (Cs) vote rose by 400,000 votes to around 1,110, 000; taking most of the PP vote and a large slice of the Socialist Party’s (PSC). In Barcelona, Cs was the most voted party in both the richest and the poorest neighbourhoods. While upper middle class and right-wing voters clearly see Cs as a more viable alternative to a discredited PP, many Spanish speaking working class voters have turned to an option whose sole attraction is its explicit defence of Spanish nationalism.
Superficially Cs is a “clean” “centre” party, with new young faces not tainted by corruption that offers a moderate alternative to the more radical representative of “new politics”, Podemos. In reality it represents an attempt to provide an alternative to the discredited PP. Cs has more or less constantly voted with the PP in favour of austerity, against progressive legislation and has avoided condemning the Francoist dictatorship.
By basing itself on a rejection of Catalan identity, and encouraging displays of outraged Spanish national pride, there is a similarity in the method used by Cs to gain mass support and that of neo-fascist parties in the rest of Europe with their hatred of the ‘other’. Without making a direct comparison, this “other”, instead of immigrants or Muslims, in the Spanish case is “the Catalans”.
In the rest of the Spanish state support for the Catalans’ right to self-determination has been confined to the Basque independentists and the far left. Unfortunately much of the Spanish and even the Catalan non-independentist left seem unable to differentiate between a national minority’s legitimate demands for self determination and a centralist and oppressive Spanish nationalism. In fact, under the cover of abstract internationalism the very existence of a Spanish nationalism is conveniently ignored.
For some on the left, widespread support for Cs has confirmed that the “working class” rejects Catalan national identity, and that the independence movement is “middle class”. In reality, the working class in Catalonia is, like elsewhere, linguistically, occupationally and culturally diverse. For instance, in the media the term “middle class” is often used to refer to anyone who has been to university or is a school teacher or even a nurse.
Any struggle for national liberation has an interclass basis and the Catalan movement is not an exception. Its working class component, for example, played a central role in the general strike of 3 October; in particular dockers and firefighters. Neither is this a “right wing” movement. The call for the creation of Catalan Republic represents a break with the 1978 pact with the remnants of Francoism, the Monarchy and the PP. Calls for social justice and equality are common place in the propaganda of the broad-based Assemblea Nacional Catalana, which was has been at the centre of the mass mobilisations. Moreover, attempts by the Catalan government, often under pressure from the CUP, to introduce progressive social legislation have been blocked by the Spanish Constitutional Court; hence reinforcing the belief that only an independent Catalonia could introduce such measures. In contrast, the main employers’ organisations in Catalonia are resolutely opposed to independence.
However, working class support for Cs clearly is a problem for the independence movement. During the demise of the dictatorship there was a clear overlap between the social and national struggle. But in subsequent years Catalan national identity became closely identified with anti-working class governments run by the forerunners of PDeCAT. Much of the Spanish-speaking working class have supported the PSC but, rather than provide a progressive alternative to conservative nationalism, the socialists have pandered to Spanish centralism. As a result the more “Catalanist” sections of the PSC have gradually abandoned the party leaving it firmly under the control of the most pro-Unionist sectors. With the emergence of the independence movement, the PSC has been brushed aside by the more virulently Spanish nationalist Cs.
Unfortunately Catalunya en Comú while opposing the application of Article 155 but reject outright any unilateral declaration of Catalan independence. Instead it calls for a “legal” referendum based on a very unlikely pact with a PP or PSOE government in Madrid.
Behind many of the mobilisations of recent months, especially the general strikes against repression of 3 October and 8 November have been the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs). With the movement in retreat, the CDRs, along with the anti-capitalist CUP, should become even more central, both in resisting repression and in pushing the movement further to the left.
Mobilisation in the street has become even more necessary with the CUP having lost its determining role in the Catalan parliament. Most of the 143,000 votes the CUP lost compared with 2015 probably transferred to the ERC, partly in support of its jailed leader, Oriol Junqueras. But the CUP’s 195,000 votes have to be compared with 126,000 it won when first standing in Catalan elections (previously it only participated in municipal polls) in 2012.
The CDRs, on the other hand, have a much broader base, involving many voters of ERC and even Junts per Catalunya who retain their support for the Republic. The CUP could play a key role inside the CDRs but only if it breaks with its tendency to be inward looking, if not sectarian, and promotes unity in action with other forces. Unity can also be built with the non-independentist left (Catalunya en Comú; left unions such as CGT and IAC etc.) given their shared opposition to austerity and repression.
So while the CUP is right to support the re-establishment of the legitimate government ousted by Madrid, it is also right to distance itself from both any retreat from a clear break with the Spanish state or a return to the austerity politics of previous Catalan governments.
This article was updated for clarity after publication.